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Category Archives: Ruin and Decay

Bewitching Shetland

To travel is to broaden the mind, as people say. New vistas, new cultures and new ideas enrich and even change our perspectives.

What this Antipodean writer did not expect when I travelled to Shetland was to be so captivated by the beauty of the wild islands, as well as its history so well preserved, and its fascinating culture, in particular the food and the cooking of the islands. I was under a spell, utterly smitten.

Shetland is a group of islands, north of mainland UK, and surprisingly close to Norway. Described aptly by the official Shetland website, “where Scotland meets Scandinavia and the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.” I can attest to the latter, as I actually crossed from sea to ocean, walking the distance of a whole 80 metres!

In life, I am very much influenced by place, the physical environment, the light, the sky and even the weather. I instantly feel a connection, or not, as the case may be, to a place. I feel the place too, in the mood, the atmosphere, a sense of what has happened in a place, its emotional gauge.

So what I experienced in Shetland is coloured by these kinds of reactions to places that made some very strong impressions on me. I am writing here a little about those places I saw and experiences I had there, to give the reader an idea of the power of Shetland to capture one’s spirit and imagination.

I was gobsmacked by the views. The coastline is stunning, beautiful and largely free of the impact of humans, unending vistas where sheep rule. Wild, but not rugged, to my mind. The absence of trees on the landscape, the verdant slopes, close cropped green pastures, soften the view. The vast expanse of sky and the sheer cliffs, all buffeted by bracing winds, make the landscape wild but not forbidding.

I’m no great walker, but I was able to have the experience of walking this beautiful coastline. The Kettla Ness headland, in West Burra, on the island of Mainland, provided spectacular high views of an extensive and gentle coastline, and gave me the sense of the vastness of sky and ocean.

Undulating countryside seen from Kettla Ness
Walking on Kettla Ness

I loved the island of Mousa. The visit to the island was a memorable day, everything about it was special, from the ferry trip to the walk to encountering my first Iron Age broch.

I was able to walk around a part of this island, where the principal inhabitants are birds, and the Broch of Mousa is a testament to its Iron Age history. Indeed, this Broch is the most well preserved and significant Iron Age broch in Britain. Walkers are delivered by ferry to Mousa, the only humans on the island. Eating an egg sandwich for lunch at the base of the historic Broch was a curious and slightly comforting experience. A very human activity, creating a connection across two thousand years with those people who had ate, slept and lived in that very place.

The island of Mousa
The Broch of Mousa from the ferry

To the north west in Mainland is Eshaness, rugged and wildly beautiful cliff tops. Sea and wind have carved and shaped the cliffs into fantastic shapes. A circular walk from the lighthouse really made me aware that the sheep of Shetland dominate landscape and agriculture. I loved the walk, where you cross many fences and stone walls with stiles, the startling coastline to the west, untouched by human hand, and undulating pastures to the east, evidence of human occupation.

Cliffs at Eshaness
Rock formation at Eshaness

Unst is the most northerly island in Shetland. I’m not sure how close to Norway the top of Unst is. Walking on Skaw Beach, and on top of Saxa Vord Hill, on a wild and windy morning, I definitely felt that Norway was only kilometres away – quite a few, I grant you – but the Norse connection to Shetland seemed palpable. The top of Unst is another place that is desolate and beautiful, exposed and raw, a powerful place.

Skaw Beach
Saxa Vord Hill

It’s hard not to look at the landscapes and seascapes of Shetland without connecting them to Shetland’s history, as they are so intertwined.

The history of Shetland fascinated and engaged me. The Neolithic, Iron Age and comparatively recent Norse occupations have shaped the culture of the islands. The Viking invasions from around 800AD, created the northern outreach, the Shetland islands, of a great Norse earldom that had its base in Orkney, and it’s this that has influenced language, laws and culture in Shetland.

With time Norway, from where the Norse invaders had come, was increasingly under Danish control, and in 1471 Shetland was annexed to Scotland as a result of a marriage treaty between James III of Scotland and Margaret, a Danish princess. The Danish repeatedly tried to have the islands returned to them, but Scotland never agreed. That Shetland has had such a significant Norse influence and occupation in relatively recent history speaks much about the ethos, the outlook of the islands.

I am keen to research more of the Viking story in Shetland and Orkney. I have a connection with Orkney and its Norse past. My given name, Inga, is an inheritance from that past. The wider narrative, told in the Orkneyinga Saga, is a source of both fictional and historical detail and an interesting resource.

You find evidence of an amazing past everywhere in Shetland. Wherever you go, you stumble across places and relics of archeological significance. From deserted Iron Age remains on walking trails, to the Mousa Broch already mentioned, and the magnificent Jarlshof in Sumburgh, Mainland, one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Britain.

Jarlshof
Jarsholf

Jarlshof is an incredibly well preserved site of human occupation, with remains dating from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD. There is evidence from Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Norse settlements. Luckily for me this amazing site was next door to the hotel where I was staying in Sumburgh, affording me a close inspection of the site. Standing at the top of the tower and surveying the region on a clear day was another of those experiences of connection with lives of the past.

Muness Castle, on the island of Unst, is a remarkably preserved example of a fortified castle. It was interesting to examine a ruin that was comparatively “modern”, built in 1598 for Laurence Bruce. It is the most northerly castle in the British Isles. Laurence Bruce, a lowlander, was Sheriff of Scotland and an oppressor of its Scandinavian inhabitants. The castle, although ruined, felt oppressive, even menacing, evoking its dark past. Walking in the ruins, into rooms largely intact, where people had lived their lives, seemed to dissolve the five hundred years that had elapsed from the building of the castle to 2019.

The ruins of Muness Castle
Inside the castle

The land and seascapes of Shetland are stunning, but part of their beauty is the abundant and at times unique wildlife. Shetland attracts walkers and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. There are countless opportunities to observe colonies of seabirds, as well as rare bird species.

Walking to the top of Sumburgh Head, to the lighthouse, there was an abundance of bird life to see. This was my first introduction to puffins, that iconic symbol of Shetland wildlife, as well as fulmars and gannets. On the island of Mousa, there are Arctic and great skuas, Arctic terns, gulls and storm petrels, those much sought after residents of this small island.

A puffin
Fulmars nesting

In islands where the sea is king, sea mammals proliferate. Otter tracking, and seal and whale spotting are popular. I was lucky enough to encounter the first two of these sea mammals.

An otter tracking morning on the island of Yell provided an opportunity to see an otter in action, if only from a distance. Otters were probably introduced to Shetland. As there were no large rivers they had to adapt to living by the sea. Their holts or dens are next to fresh water so they can wash the salt off their fur when they come ashore. Our otter was spotted near the low lying shore, and did indeed make a bolt for his holt!

Seals are plentiful and easy to see. We saw quite a few seals, sporting in the shallows or sun baking on the beach or rocks on days that were not really that sunny…

Seals basking on the shore

The land, the sea, the wildlife are special, but it’s the people and the stories of the past that I wanted to find out about. For me the social history of the islands was important and I particularly wanted to investigate food and culture in Shetland.

There is so much wonderful produce in Shetland – in particular, seafood is amazing – fish, scallops and mussels. It’s obvious that sheep are an important food source. While lamb is delicious, I did try reestit, a leg of mutton that has been dried and cured. I think this might be an acquired taste!

A really interesting look at social history was at the Croft House Museum in Dunrossness, Mainland. The Croft House Museum is a mid-nineteenth century Shetland croft, beautifully preserved to show the day to day life of the crofter and his family. I loved the cooking arrangements over the hearth, complete with legs of reestit mutton hanging up to dry.

The Croft House Museum
Reestit mutton

The roadside provided a wealth of views and insights into Shetland life. The wedding displays with bride and groom on Unst (I don’t know what these are called), the “furnished” bus shelter also on Unst and the cake fridges, where all manner of cakes can be picked up from the fridge by the roadside – paid for of course with an honesty system.

A wedding in Unst

Bus shelter Unst
Cake fridge

The craft scene is big in Shetland, with much of it based around wool. Fair Isle knitwear is everywhere, as well as more contemporary designs in knitted items. I was happy to sport the Fair Isle look with a jumper or two and a really warm beanie.

I am really interested in the baking in Shetland. I had lots of scones, cakes and crumbles wherever I went. Alas I didn’t get to eat bannocks, those floured scone like creations traditionally cooked on a girdle hung over the fire, and still cooked today, on girdles on stove tops and also oven baked. I’ve made bannocks here in Oz, and I wanted to know how mine compared.

Sunday Teas are legendary in Shetland! They are an institution, where local communities provide sandwiches, baked goods and all sorts of treats, and of course tea, for a modest price, as a fundraising activity.

The timing just didn’t work out for a visit to a Sunday Tea. But I did get to go to the Walls Show, on 10 August 2019. The Tea Tent provided the same kind of fare, with a lovely array of delicious cakes, traybakes and scones.

Tea at the Walls Show

It was so much fun to go to the Show, and I was reminded that country shows all over have a lot in common, with lots of animals, exhibits, prizes for “best in show” and of course things to eat. The Walls Show was a great day out. I loved the sheep, the Shetland ponies, the jumpers and the afore mentioned Tea Tent! The Vikings even made an appearance!

Yellow sheep!
Vikings at the Walls Show

Just about everything I had to eat in Shetland was delicious. I have to mention the tea, scones and cakes at Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms in Haroldswick, Unst, “The Most Northerly Tea Rooms in Britain”. Victoria sponge to die for, Jammy Dodger cupcakes, tiffin and those scones with clotted cream. Yummy.

Victoria sponge and coconut sponge at Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms

My experience of Shetland was memorable. I need to mention here the wonderful Shetland Nature, so knowledgeable and willing to provide that Shetland experience, and in particular Rob Fray, whose expert guidance from the south to the most northerly tip of Shetland not only showed me the physical land but also the heart and spirit of the place and its people.

My Fair Isle jumper
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Glen Davis, Capertee Valley: Mine Abandon

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Between towering sandstone escarpments in the Capertee Valley, lies a curious ruin.

A shale oil mine, first founded in 1891as the MP1 Mining Development, was later revived as National Oil Proprietary Limited, from 1940 to 1952. What remains is a series of ruins, a testament to a failed vision and also to the endurance of those who persevered with the troubled conditions, logistical, financial and political.

I toured the mine ruin on a visit to the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains. It was a beautiful, crisp winter day. The light was intense, emphasizing the sheer craggy walls of the escarpment, which enclosed the mine ruins with almost a sense of claustrophobia.

Our guide was affable, loquacious and informed. A storyteller, he regaled us with curious stories of these curious ruins; shocking workplace accidents, awful living and working conditions and a spectral figure caught on film.

My companions described the landscape as post apocalyptic, Planet of the Apes, a moonscape –  some apt descriptions.

However I can’t quite put my finger on the atmosphere. There was no doubt that the pristine day only served to accentuate the foreboding of the valley: there was indeed an other world sense, shadows and intuitions of past difficulty and trouble, hard times and futility.

What was evident was the encroach of nature, the land reclaiming its own. Entropy had set in.

A fascinating and startling landscape to visit.

There is plenty of material to read on the internet. Some interesting photos, some historical, can be found at: http://web.aanet.com.au/bayling/glendavis.html

Below are some photos. I have not tried to order or to name, but rather to give the “feel” of the place. The above website is helpful in identifying some of the ruins.

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Rozelle Substation – Suburban Abandon

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Nestled in between suburban dwellings in a quiet back street in Rozelle, Sydney, is an electricity substation dating back to 1934.

The building is no longer in use. The front facade has the clean angular lines of an art deco influenced style; the rear of the building, hidden behind barbed wire, is in a lovely leafy back lane and could almost be mistaken for a garden outhouse.

More romantically, it reminded me of early 19th century English garden architecture, where a rough hewn building in a garden landscape might contain a hermit. Tom Stoppard in his play Arcadia writes about the “hermitage” and the “hermit” in English landscape gardening.

“English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors…. Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia!…. It’s the Gothic novel expressed in landscape.”  Tom Stoppard, Arcadia.

The gently decaying building pictured below, with its little door, abandoned furniture and lovely overgrown garden might, perhaps, contain a hermit, and I half expected one to appear…

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Beyond Ambient

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Quiet Space on Radio National is the highlight of my listening week. Mentioned before on this blog, I look forward to the hour between 12 midnight and 1.00am on Sundays and Mondays, when the inimitable Paul Gough presents a radio program of contemporary music that encompasses ambient, electronic, field recordings, distressed instrumentals and ethereal drones.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/quietspace/

The Quiet Space Top 50 2013 has been revealed over the last few weeks in January 2014. Some fabulous music from a year of fabulous music!

Check out the website for the Top 50.

Here is my pick of the wonderful music I’ve been listening to in 2013. Beyond ambient, the creators of these performances, from many countries across the globe, make music that transcends boundaries, eludes definition and is highly atmospheric and evocative.

Some of these albums have been featured on Quiet Space or I have found them through links to albums thus featured.

Documenting the Decay and Book of the Folded Forest have been played, and played again, by me; haunting music that engenders reflection and contemplation on the natural and man made worlds, on entropy and decay.

a2132894020_9Documenting the Decay – Charles Vaughan

a0348918827_9Book of the Folded Forest – Orla Wren

a1611162738_9Visiting Tides – Simon Bainton

a3634851268_9A Sense of Uncertainty  – Good Weather for an Airstrike

a3888832538_9Epilogue – Endless Melancholy

a2227694531_9naimina-longeur – Chris Herbert

a3315961257_9Weathered – epic45

Documenting a Contemporary Working Ruin

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My fascination with urban ruins has made me very observant of just how many structures lie abandoned around Sydney, magnificent in their architecture or just a signifier of a former, now outdated use.

Power stations and sub stations, abandoned factories and warehouses, disused railway lines, even single crumbling walls, exist around Sydney, mostly with very little known or documented about them.

There is a truly unique group of buildings in Sydney that sits incongruously in its suburban landscape. Once a sail-makers’ premises, the buildings today seem oddly romantic – one building, a cottage on the site, sports wrought iron window surrounds, and charming blue woodwork on the doors that is peeling and decaying, but would now be regarded as fashionably distressed.

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The premises is very much still in business and is an Aladdin’s cave of things lucent and theatrical. A further photographic project would be to document the contents of the Tardis like factory itself.

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As with most urban ruins, nature reclaims territory wherever possible. Volunteer plants – beautiful weeds – entwine themselves among rusting metal and decaying wood. Perhaps a triffid is waiting for its moment…

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The site, familiar to me for many years, still fascinates. Artisan like, quirky, dilapidated, not a ghost, clinging tenaciously to life, the spirit of this working ruin is palpable as you wander the site.

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White Bay Power Station: documenting an urban ruin

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The White Bay Power Station dominates the landscape on Victoria Road and Roberts Road in Rozelle, Sydney, a stone’s throw from the working harbour.

A marvellous ruin, the building has a fascination for this writer who has a passion for ruin, dilapidation and decay.

I document the daily and seasonal view of the tall chimneys of the ruin from my bedroom window as can be seen sometimes in the changing images which head this blog.

Built over a period from1912 to1958, and decommissioned thirty years ago, it is a heritage listed structure. The ruin towers over the entrance to the Balmain peninsula and is an iconic counterpoint to a largely residential suburb.

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